Teacher, lecturer, and activist; scholar of Buddhism, deep ecology, and systems theory; speaker to the social, psychological, and spiritual issues of the nuclear age-Joanna Macy wants no less than to transform the way we understand our world. The author of Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, World as Lover, World as Self, and Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, Macy sees the era in which we live as a pivotal time-one in which human civilization will either succeed or fail in making the shift from industrial growth and economic interest to self-sustainability. Success, she believes, lies primarily in our ability to retrain ourselves to think not in terms of our own short lifetimes, but on behalf of the many generations that will follow us. Her name for the time in which we live is The Great Turning-a revolution not just within the realm of politics, but within the realm of thought. I recently had the chance to speak with Macy, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation. For a longer version, see independent.com/macy.
I hear you’ve just returned from a retreat in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it was a 30-day immersion in the coastal wilderness, devoted to looking at and connecting with the needs of future generations. That’s what I’m going to be talking about in Santa Barbara-The Great Turning-which is the name I use for the transition from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. This is a vast revolution that affects every part of our lives and our thinking, and it definitely comes from-and indeed requires-a sense of connection with future generations. That’s what we were practicing and looking at on the retreat. It really helps to get away from email, and cell phones, and all those technologies that pull us into short-term thinking.
For those of us who may not have 30 days to spare, is there a way to access that kind of awareness-I guess you could call it longer-term thinking? I call it deep time, and it’s really very much available to us as humans on this planet, because our ancestors had it, indigenous peoples and surviving indigenous cultures have it, and until quite recently, that way of thinking was the norm. But within an industrial growth society, the power of market forces-particularly the maximization of corporate profit and the way market shares are measured, quarter by quarter-drives us into short-term thinking where we’re willing to discount the future for the sake of the present. That experience of time and that orientation to time in our political economy is destructive to the world’s natural systems.
What was your in-road to this way of thinking? I found my way into this through working on the issue of nuclear waste. I was very dismayed, to put it mildly, to see what we were spewing into the environment that would have an impact on thousands of future generations. This must be a sick relation to time that would motivate us to do such a thing for immediate financial gain. Of all the things I have done in my life, this has been the most uplifting, energizing, and revitalizing, because I realize that this is our birthright: to live in relation to our ancestors and to all future beings. I look forward to seeing how living in this way can empower us to take part in this revolution. It’s a privilege to be alive at a time when we can take part in it.
You often work with political and social activists. No doubt there are those who find some of this thinking frustratingly abstract, those who want concrete action. What’s your response to that reaction? Most of the work we associate with activism is aiming at slowing down the destruction being wrought by this political economy. But that’s not all there is, because even if we won all those battles it wouldn’t be enough; we have to have other ways to attack the problem. And that is what is happening on the community level-unsung heroes and actions around the world that are happening under the radar of the corporate-controlled media, actions that are unparalleled in human history.
It can sound like whistling in the dark if you don’t admit that we can blow it, and may well not succeed in pulling it off. My god, what we’re losing in terms of the great forests-the Amazon and the Congo, the plankton in the seas, the viability of the climate-we could go under before the structures and systems that we put in place can really kick in. So we live with uncertainty.
If we did succeed, what would a life-sustaining civilization look like? We can’t really tell too clearly, because it’s going to emerge synergistically as we put the pieces in place, like new systems of growing food and holding the land and green building and new forms of decision-making and currency. But we do know that it has to take care of everybody; there won’t be winners and losers. We know that. And we have to live within the limits of what the earth can afford; we know that. And we know we have to use incredible technologies to harness the power of the tides and the wind and the sun, and that these systems will have to work for all and not only for a small number; we know that. And we know that we can’t have our lives dictated by greed and corporate organizers whose sole interest is profit and market share; we know that, and so we can feel kind of interested, really curious, and really optimistic that so many people are seeing the necessity for this kind of equity. It’s a big adventure. We’re not saying that it’s a sure thing. But what else do you want to do with your beautiful, precious life?
Paul Hawken writes, “What it takes to arrest our descent into chaos is one person after another remembering who and where we really are.” How do we reconnect with those memories? I think often what it takes is to recognize that under the surface of life as usual-under the appearance of success-people are in grief. There is grief for our world within people, and fear, and dread, and outrage at what is happening to our shared life, and to the prospects for the future. What has encouraged me to even go into this work at all is realizing and then speaking to this capacity of people to suffer with their world. This is evidence of the profound interconnectedness of all life, and it is also the literal meaning of compassion. In every major religious and spiritual tradition, this ability is prized, because from that source you can derive strength to act on behalf of the whole. Once people touch into their pain and don’t try to get rid of it but bow to it instead, it breaks the spell; it breaks the industrial growth trance that most of us are trapped in.
Joanna Macy will speak at the Lobero Theatre on Monday, October 29, 7:30 p.m. as part of the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education lecture series, Mind & Supermind. For tickets, call 687-0812 or visit lobero.com.